The Slumber Party from Hell, review by:
The Slumber Party from Hell
A True Story of Turning Pain into Power
By Sue Ellen Allen
If you happen to be facing life in prison – specifically, Perryville in Goodyear, Arizona – don’t read this book. The author, Sue Ellen Allen, paints a bleak picture of her seven years of incarceration. The first leg of her journey through the system begins at Estrella Jail, where I’ve spent the greater part of a decade. When I read through her account of her time at this facility and found that everything fit and was familiar, I knew I could trust what she had written about Perryville.
She does, however, include a few adages I disagree with. One is: “Usually, in ADC [Arizona Department of Corrections], change does not bode well,” referring to an impending change in her housing situation. I’ve found that every time I’ve been moved (twenty-three so far), it turned out to be a blessing.
Another is attributed to an anonymous inmate: “The worst day of freedom is better than the best day in prison.” My darkest and most dismal days occurred before I was arrested, and though I’ve had many dark days since, they place second to the pain of those earlier times.
Another point where I differ with the author: strip searches. Many years ago I heard a maxim that has stayed with me: “If there’s something wrong with the human body then maybe the fault lies with the Creator.” Strip searches are not nearly as awful as she portrays them. Then again, Sue Ellen talks about things like “dignity,” and when I entered the system, I was in short supply of that. But even now, strip searches are routine, prosaic and par for the course. Furthermore, the officer is no more excited about conducting the perfunctory task (known among staff members as “booty duty,” though that is not mentioned in the book) than are the inmates who comply.
I was pleasantly surprised to recognize one of the real-life characters that appear in the book. Carolyn, who has been volunteering her time to cut hair at Estrella for over ten years and who has cut mine at least five times, became Sue Ellen’s first pen pal at Perryville. Carolyn writes to many of the women after they’re transferred and are no longer in the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. She encloses stories, jokes and prayers.
The most outrageous, but all-too-typical, part of her journey was what she went through while battling breast cancer, a fight made all the more excruciating by the unbelievable rigmarole and inadequacies of the medical care systems of Estrella and Perryville. (Times have changed at both facilities since her tenure, 2002-2009, but there is yet room for improvement.) She endures chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and radiation, and writes with candor about the moments leading up to her surgery. “I look at my breast for the last time. How do they dispose of it? Does it go in the trash? The girls say it’s going to Boobie Heaven.”
In spite of the indifference of medical staff, there is no shortage of support from the inmates upon her return from the hospital. “At the jail, the girls hug me and laugh and cry with me. They look at my scar and say stunningly bad words. They hold my hand and comfort me. How grateful I am for human contact.”
The sometimes fatal shortcomings of Medical are horrifying, and Sue Ellen exposes them at their rawest:
“At last, my chemo starts and I am very nauseated. I collapse, vomiting. An officer comes and asks, ‘Can you walk the three blocks to Medical? There are no wheelchairs.’
“ ‘I’ll try,’ I murmur.
“One third of the way across the soccer field, I collapse, vomiting some more. Weakly, I manage to pull myself up and continue across the field. No one helps me. By now, there are several officers and a nurse. They walk behind me in a weird parade. I make it to the picnic tables in Visitation where I stop and vomit some more.
“ ‘Get somebody to clean this up,’ the sergeant barks. No vomiting on the rocks.
“I make it to Medical where the nurse puts me in a room on a hard, cold leather table. She hands me a wastebasket and I continue to vomit. How can I vomit so much? This never happened when I had chemo outside. In prison, there is complete indifference. The nurse comes with news. The doctor is too busy to administer the shot to stop the vomiting. Even the nurse is frustrated. She says there is no emergency. He is just doing paperwork. I vomit until there is nothing left and then I dry heave until I cannot lift my head.
“At last, an hour later, the doctor comes in, obviously irritated to have to deal with me. He acts like I am faking and reluctantly administers the shot.
“I have three more treatments of chemo. Despite the rigid schedule, never is the medication ready on time. I have to spend my sickest days walking the very long distance across the field to Medical, begging for what I am missing. When I am supposed to be healing, I am worn out battling for proper treatment. I cannot understand the indifference. These are supposed to be healthcare professionals.
“That’s my real fear, my helplessness in the face of a medical department that is incompetent and apathetic. As the property of the State, my life is literally in their hands and I’ve come to realize they don’t give a damn.
“Chemotherapy is finally over. Radiation starts. No more nausea. Burning instead.
“I go to Medical to get my burn cream and pain meds. My chest is a mass of blisters and feels like a tiny fairy is dancing on it with razor blades on the soles of her shoes. The nurse says they don’t have my meds and I can buy IBUs at the store. Well, I could if it was Walgreens. We are only allowed to order once a week and I have no money anyway. This is cancer, the meds are ordered. Why can’t I get them? Why is everything such a battle?
“Meanwhile, Gina collapses. At Medical, they treat her with the same hostile indifference that I experience. Gina had previously given me a little pep talk when I cried over my situation at Medical. ‘Come on, Sue Ellen. It can’t be that bad.’ Now she is abjectly sorry: ‘I was wrong. It’s worse.’
“On June 19, 2003, Gina dies. The last week of her life is spent in horrific pain, crying, terrified, neglected. Medical is hostile. No one listens. Gina lies on her bunk, literally beating her head against the concrete wall, wailing from the pain. Finally, she can’t even walk. Unable to climb to her top bunk, she lies on mine, crying as I hold her and pray aloud. On June 16th, they finally take her to the hospital while I am at radiation. When I return from treatment, she is gone and the room is painfully silent.
“Suddenly, two days after they take her to the hospital, Gina is dead. How in the hell does a healthy twenty-five-year-old die so fast? The administration says she had acute leukemia. Fast-acting and a death sentence. The shock of Gina’s death is overwhelming. There is no counseling for inmates, but they do offer it to the officers. They continue to treat me with ignorance and apathy.
“Soon after this, Christine is released, has a second mastectomy and dies three months later. If her cancer had been diagnosed and treated when she had discovered her lump, maybe she’d be alive, too.”
Despite these incredible afflictions, the overall tone of the book remains hopeful and positive, even at time cloying, yet always sincere. The most important thrust of the book is what the author took from her experience and did with it. Touched from the beginning by the women’s compassion, love, empathy and generosity during her cancer battle and simultaneously struck by their “incessant noise, violence, hostility, and indifference,” as well as overwhelmed by Gina’s sudden death, Sue Ellen began a program for the women in Perryville as soon as she was released. She recognized that most of the women released from prison were woefully under-prepared to reenter society and lacked resources, life skills and the basic personal development that would help them become successful and steer themselves away from reoffending. The program focuses on growing self-awareness, changing defeatist beliefs about oneself, cultivating self-esteem and building leadership skills.
This book is ultimately a testament to how greatly our attitudes can affect our experiences, regardless of what we are confronted with.
-- Jodi Arias
Second review of this book by Dori Owen